Romy Hall is a young woman serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanford Women’s Correctional Facility in California. Outside, in the free world is her mother and her seven-year-old son. Inside, is a world where she has no rights, where hustling to survive is the norm and boredom is rife. Her upbringing by her single mother was less than ideal and she does what she can to escape the cycle of poverty which was pre-ordained from her childhood. Working in various jobs, dabbling in drugs, she ends up as a dancer in a strip club where a man stalks her and that’s where the trouble begins.
The Mars Room, short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018 is the name of the strip club where Romy worked. We are in her head, observing and feeling the desperation and despair of prison life. Detail slowly unfolds until we find out the reason for her incarceration.
The legal system is frustrating and her overworked legal counsel is barely adept because she can’t afford anything better. Her side of why she did what she did wasn’t permissible and the injustice of it all permeates.
Her lawyer explains, “Even in these unbelievable cases, where the lawyer is totally out to lunch, they (the judiciary) still side with him. One guy fell asleep during cross-examination of his client. Another was a felon himself, handing a murder case as community service, but had no experience as a trial lawyer. Think those guys were ‘ineffective’? Not according to the Supreme Court. You got a very tough deal. There’s no question, and I feel for you.”
The author takes us on a bleak ride into the gritty and raw lifestyle of people who are down and out, abused and drug addicted, and into an institutionalised system where prisoners are barely treated with any human dignity. The characters are well drawn and Kushner does a remarkable job to show not just their flaws but their vulnerability and humanity particularly fellow women prisoners. Kushner gives us brief interludes into other points of view, mostly men; Doc the corrupt detective, Hauser, the teacher and even the stalker.
I’m in two minds about this book. On one hand it’s a fascinating look at life through the eyes of a prisoner. On the other hand, it was disjointed as the chapters flipped in and out of Romy’s point of view and I found this to be a bit laboured. I think I would have preferred to see the world only through Romy’s eyes which was quite rich enough. It’s very well written and the ending was incredible stayed in my head long afterwards. It’s definitely a book worth checking out.